Next generation housing

Regardless whether the Santa Monica City Council approves a housing element that is truly compliant with the City’s RHNA obligation or one where compliance is aspirational (or worse, only rhetorical), most of the controversy about the document will involve not the number of units the housing element plans for, although that’s controversial enough, but rather where they might be built and who might live in them.

Most prominently, there have been scores of emails to the City’s planners opposing the proposal City Council approved at its March 30 meeting to extend an “Affordable Housing Overlay” to the City’s R1 (single-family home) districts and another proposal to up-zone parts of the R1 north of Montana Avenue to R2 (the City’s least dense multi-unit zone).

The issue exists because state law now requires cities in their housing elements to explain how they are going to undo the lingering impacts of past segregation-creating practices, such as exclusionary zoning, restrictive racial covenants, and federal policies such as redlining. The R1 districts make up 35% of Santa Monica’s land. Regardless of how tolerant people consider themselves today, the demographic and economic make-up of the R1 zones reflects a legacy of excluding working-class people in general and people of color in particular. It’s hard to “affirmatively further fair housing” without doing something about the land tied up in R1.

At the same time there are issues about what kind of housing should be built anywhere and who should live in that housing: questions about “affordability” and “density.” Then there’s “gentrification”—the idea, current among many activists, that investment in low-income neighborhoods, even if it’s in new housing that doesn’t directly displace current residents, displaces residents indirectly by leading to increased rents and home prices.

As it happens, extending zoning into R1 districts that would allow multi-unit developments, affordable or not, is not going to survive in the housing element. The planning commissioners voted 6-1 to remove the Affordable Housing Overlay proposal and the proposal to up-zone any of R1 (beyond the up-zoning of parking lots adjacent to commercial zones). The commission was mindful of the exclusionary history, but, taking note of the political difficulties, found reasons to focus on other means of achieving a more equitable mix of housing around the city.

Those reasons included that given the cost of land in R1 districts, and the difficulty of assembling contiguous lots, it is unlikely that meaningful amounts of affordable housing would be built. The commissioners also pointed out that the state, with its laws requiring cities to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family zones, had already turned R1 into something like R1.5. They thought that to bring affordable housing to R1 areas it made more sense to better enable multi-unit housing along the commercial streets that border or run through the R1 districts than to expect affordable housing to be built on single-family lots.

Staff has informed City Council that it agrees with the Planning Commission and instead wants to facilitate construction of ADUs to bring more affordability to R1 districts. As seen in this map, nearly all ADUs are being built in R1 districts.

A map showing where ADUs have been built in Santa Monica since the state required liberalization of ADU requirements. Contrary to the legend, green denotes R1 zoning (not only yellow).

Although ADUs are not deed-restricted affordable, staff considers them “affordable by design” since they are smaller than the typical home in R1.

As for me, I agree that it doesn’t make sense to include major changes to R1 in the housing element because they won’t achieve the goals state law requires of the housing element. Best now to limit the housing element to pragmatic solutions. In the meantime, there is legislation in Sacramento, SB9, that’s passed the State Senate and has a good chance of becoming law that would alter R1 by allowing lot splits.

As for one pragmatic solution, staff, with agreement from the Planning Commission, is suggesting a return to previous policies to encourage developments entirely consisting of apartments deed-restricted to up to moderate income households. Ddevelopers had since the ’90s constructed 100% moderate buildings in Santa Monica without subsidy and these apartments have provided a lot of Section 8 housing. A few years ago, however, the City effectively killed production of 100% moderate projects by requiring inclusion of low-income units, which made them unfeasible without subsidy.

What I don’t understand is why, if the City is trying to disperse affordability, staff suggests limiting this policy to downtown, the Bergamot area, and the area near the 17th Street E line stop. Moderate income housing serves an important demographic (household income for a family of four of up to $96,000) that is otherwise priced out of Santa Monica. Why shouldn’t moderate income apartments be encouraged in all multi-unit zones? Particularly on boulevards adjacent to R1 neighborhoods? I don’t get it.

Which brings up the “who should live in the 8,895 units” issue.

At the March 30 City Council meeting on the housing element, Councilmember Phil Brock said something that was quite simple, but that really got me thinking. Brock, who was elected with strong support from the anti-development faction in local politics, said that he was in favor of building housing for people “who can’t afford to live here.” I don’t know if he meant that that would be the only kind of housing he favored, but nonetheless it got me thinking about the question, “who can’t afford to live here?”

We have a lot of laws and policies, federal, state, and local, about building housing for people with limited means, in categories from no income up to 120% of median income. These policies try to address the issue that is, when joined with the inextricably related issue of homelessness, the most pressing social issue in Los Angeles County. That is housing our working class. The number of working people priced out of the housing market; the number of people doubling and tripling up in worn-out houses and apartments; the number of people who run out of that last couch to surf on and end up in the streets; however you describe the problem, the data is overwhelming.

Perhaps Councilmember Brock was thinking of them and only them, and that would make sense, since so much of housing element law is justifiably directed towards creating housing for those populations. That’s why 6,168 units of Santa Monica’s RHNA obligation of 8,895 are meant to be “affordable.”

But there is another population that also “can’t afford to live here.” Let’s call them the “next generation.” Meaning young people who are now forming families. Young people who went to college and are making good money, who have paired up with spouses and partners who are also making good money, and who as a result do not qualify even for “moderate income” housing. (Remember – a limit of $96,000 for a four-person household. Two or often even one college-degree income will quickly take you over that.)

Many of these young people are literally the “next generation,” in that they are the children of the millions of immigrants who came to California starting around 1970. Or they are the “first generation” of African-American families who were able to get decent educations and possibilities for decent careers based on the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. These are young people who did just what we’ve been telling our schools to do: they closed the achievement gap. They’ve gone to college. They’ve made their parents proud. They’ve made anyone who has paid school taxes and voted for school bonds proud.

But now there is no place for them to raise families. Honestly, this goes for young people from affluent families, too. My son graduated from Samohi in 2008 and his cohort, now turned 30, are pairing up and starting families. They all seem to be doing well, but the only ones whom I can see being able to get a place anywhere on the Westside are those who have families from whom they might expect major help. (Sure, if their parents have sat on a house in Santa Monica for 30 years, reaping the benefits of a constrained housing market, they may well have the money. But then they’d have to move!)

This is not only a Santa Monica problem. It’s happening all over the world. It is one reason why birthrates have fallen below sustainable rates everywhere from here to Italy to China. It’s not only that housing is expensive in cities, where most people live today, but that the housing that is being built is not big enough or configured to make family life comfortable.

Councilmember Christine Parra, who was also elected last year with support from the anti-development faction, had perhaps the most eloquent speech at the March 30 council meeting. Parra is the daughter of immigrants. She recounted how she and her husband managed to find a house to buy in Santa Monica some years ago, but she wondered how anyone like them would be able to do so today.

The fact is that the single-family house can no longer be the solution for middle-class housing, at least not in urbanized California. For both economic and environmental reasons there’s not going to be more sprawl, and you can’t manufacture an infinite number of single-family lots. This means that we need to focus not only on the number of units being built, but their size and shape. Townhouses, rowhouses, courtyard housing, apartments with decks and terraces. Room somewhere for a Thanksgiving dinner. This is an architectural problem as much as a planning problem. Also, the next generation wants to own their homes, just like previous generations did, to build nest eggs. We need condominiums and lot splits to allow for ownership.

This housing doesn’t need subsidy, but it does need to be allowed and planned for, at sufficient volume so that demand might someday meet supply at a reasonable place. If this housing is not allowed to be built in affluent areas like Santa Monica then these young families will buy in less advantaged communities, making housing less affordable for current residents and their children.

Let me reiterate: the housing crises are the crises affecting poor and working people who can’t find any housing they can afford, including unhoused people who need permanent housing with supportive services. State housing law properly prioritizes their needs.

But we need to think beyond that, too. No one can live in a home that hasn’t been built.

Thanks for reading.

Will Santa Monica’s housing element comply?

As I posted June 1, in late May Santa Monica planning staff released the first draft of the City’s general plan 2021-29 housing element. The Planning Commission conducted a hearing on the document June 2 and 3 and sent comments City Council. The council will hold a hearing on the plan next week. The goal is for the council to give staff directions for preparing this draft for submission to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for a preliminary 60-day review by July 1. The final version is due by October.  

At its March 30 meeting, City Council instructed staff to prepare a “compliant” housing element—one that would satisfy the requirements of state law. These requirements involve not only allowing and planning for Santa Monica’s “regional housing needs allocation” (RHNA) of 8,895 units (of which 6,168 are to be “affordable”), but also showing that Santa Monica was “affirmatively furthering fair housing” by allowing development to “overcome identified patterns of segregation.” (The “AFFH” requirement.)

Whether staff has drafted a compliant housing element, and whether the now six-member City Council votes to give staff a mandate to do so, are interlocking questions. Rhetorically, staff’s draft is compliant, but vague. I’d say the devil is in the details, but there are too few details. Much is left to later actions, such as changes to the City’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) and zoning laws, to implement wishful housing element “programs.” The council might approve a document that is purportedly compliant, but which HCD rejects.

For instance, and this is just one example, one program (Program 1.F.) is to revise the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) to support inclusionary affordable housing. The DCP was adopted in 2017 with rhetoric, backed up by questionable data analysis, that it would produce thousands of new apartments downtown of all sizes and levels of affordability. So far, however, the only projects that have been built or even permitted under the DCP standards are small, “Tier 1” projects with small units of which very few are affordable.

That the DCP would not produce much development was predicted, because of the high levels of affordable housing the DCP required in larger (“Tier 2”) developments and other costs housing developer had to assume. It may seem paradoxical, but to fix the problem and get more affordable units built, the DCP would need to be amended either to reduce the affordability load on market-rate developments (without increasing the size of the development), or to allow bigger projects with more market-rate development to offset the affordability requirement.

At the time council passed the DCP, council and staff said they would revisit the DCP if it failed to produce housing. Nothing has happened since 2017, however, except that the council tightened affordability requirements even further to make it even harder to build. Skeptics about the City’s intentions will look at the housing element’s “programs” as more dodges unless the document includes specific parameters for rezoning downtown.

Those skeptics surely exist. The Santa Monica Housing Council (SMHC), the organization that successfully sued Santa Monica in the early ’90s over inadequacies in the City’s housing element, has had its lawyers (the same firm whose fees of nearly $700,000 the City was required to pay) send letters—“shots across the bow”—to the Planning Commission detailing the many ways they see the City heading towards noncompliance. The SMHC’s critique focuses not only on the vagueness of the housing element, but also on what the lawyers see as overly optimistic projections of what might actually be built on the “suitable sites” the housing element must identify for housing growth.

To its credit the Planning Commission recognized vagueness as a problem. The unanimous comments of the commissioners emphasized how the housing element should specify more clearly how the City would not only make building housing (both affordable and market-rate) more feasible, but also make the approval process easier, such as by facilitating the use of the state’s density bonus program.

As for my views of the draft housing element, I’m mixed. I share the skepticism of the SMHC lawyers, especially because, as their letters reminded me, we now have a super-majority requirement of five votes in the City Council to approve any changes to the LUCE or the DCP that increase height or density. The nightmare scenario is that the council passes a feel-good, purportedly compliant housing element, but won’t or can’t because of the super-majority requirement enact the zoning changes that would implement it. Litigation and/or enforcement actions from HCD might then stretch out for years. (It is true, however, that the City could significantly increase the potential for housing development simply by returning to the standards in the LUCE, such as for “activity centers” and other Tier 3 developments. After passing the LUCE, subsequent city councils passed zoning and local plans, such as the DCP, that reduced what the LUCE allowed.)

So yes, I’m skeptical, even cynical, but when I look at the data assembled in the draft document and its supporting documents, including the inventory of “suitable sites” (Appendix F to the draft), I’m optimistic for the future of the city as a whole. That’s because the sites the planners have identified, filtering as they must do (and as the SMHC doesn’t think they have done realistically enough) are so few. They don’t include many commercially-zoned sites that have the potential for development of housing, once patterns of development are set. (Here’s the housing element’s “suitable sites” map; it leaves out a lot of commercial properties, particularly along the boulevards.)

These sites are commercial lots primarily found along the boulevards, although this housing element finally would open considerable old industrial land to housing development. (I give staff credit for that.) There is plenty of commercially-zoned land in Santa Monica on which housing could be built, even if perhaps now the land doesn’t meeting housing element standards for availability. Over the years, the City has been hesitant to allow conversion of formerly industrial land to housing, because jobs are important, too. Frankly, however, there was nostalgia for the old factory jobs that defined Santa Monica 50 years ago. Jobs today require much less square footage than the industrial jobs of the past. Converting commercially-zoned land to residential typically means fewer car trips associated with the property, and often less consumption of resources like water. Perhaps most important, you get more housing without displacing anyone.

I live in Ocean Park, a few blocks from Lincoln Boulevard. There is now beginning to be housing development on Lincoln. The new buildings under construction include a four-story Community Corporation project and a 47-unit project that’s mostly market rate. (I wrote about the latter development when it was approved in 2018.) Here are pictures of these projects under construction.

Once property owners see what can be done, more will develop their now underdeveloped land. Already other properties have been vacated and fenced off, as this photo shows, I assume for development.

Housing development along Lincoln will one day convert an “auto sewer” into a habitable boulevard.

This is what happened in downtown Santa Monica after the City passed game-changing zoning in the ’90s that encouraged residential development over commercial by allowing twice as much of the former. The changed zoning came in response to the City’s defeat in the first SMHC lawsuit. It took time for developers (and the City’s planners) to realize how to make mixed-use projects work, but ultimately a pattern emerged. A lot of housing, including a lot of affordable housing, was built downtown, turning the then desolate (other than the Promenade) core of the city into a vibrant neighborhood.

I’m not necessarily optimistic about the housing element and what will happen to it, but I am optimistic that with the right policies Santa Monica can easily find room for housing and become a better place to live at the same time.

Thanks for reading.

(This post only considered issues relating to compliance with the RHNA requirement. In a part 2 I will look at the AFFH requirement and similar issues.)

Approving a compliant housing element, post-Kevin?

Planning staff has released the first draft of Santa Monica’s Housing Element for 2021-2029, and tomorrow night the Planning Commission will have a hearing on the draft. The draft reflects input staff received from the Planning and Housing Commissions and the Rent Control Board, but primarily direction staff received from City Council at the council’s March 30 meeting. Even though the draft follows what the council said to do, people are speculating whether the council will ultimately approve the Housing Element in something like its current form.

That is because council’s direction to staff was approved on a 4-3 vote, and one of the 4 yes votes came from Kevin McKeown. Last week McKeown announced that he was quitting the council. He will be gone long before October 15, the date by which the council needs to approve a housing element and send it to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for HCD’s review and, one hopes, its acceptance. If, as it looks now, we are headed to a special election to fill McKeown’s vacancy, the council will likely have only six members at that time. Even if the council appoints a replacement, it is, of course, unclear how the new council member would vote.  

Regarding the council’s direction to staff, the primary directive was to draft a “compliant” housing element. “Compliant” meaning a document that complies with, among other things, the City’s “Regional Housing Needs Allocation” (RHNA). The RHNA number is how many new housing units Santa Monica must find room for and allow to be built. For this housing element, the number is 8,895 residences of which 6,168 are to be affordable. As I discussed in a previous post, achieving this increase in housing units would entail an approximately 2% increase each year in the city’s housing stock. While the RHNA numbers have alarmed those in Santa Monica politics opposed to development, the draft Housing Element shows that this level of housing growth is something Santa Monica could handle easily. Financing the housing, particularly the affordable housing, is more problematic.

The RHNA numbers themselves, however, were not the reason that three council members voted against the motion directing staff to prepare a compliant housing element. Those three members, Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre, and Christine Parra, seemed to be ready to vote for the motion (indeed de la Torre had already voted in favor of a slightly different prior motion that had failed), but they changed their minds at the last minute. That was when they realized that one part of the motion, an “affordable housing overlay,” would have allowed the construction of four-story deed-restricted affordable housing apartment buildings in single-family, “R1” zones.

The opposition of the three to the affordable housing overlay could ultimately be a problem for approval of a compliant housing element. The overlay is part of a strategy to comply with a new requirement for housing elements. As of this year, housing elements must specify actions a city will take for “affirmatively furthering fair housing” (AFFH). In the context of Santa Monica, this means allowing for housing development, particularly affordable housing development, in districts where there are few people of color, which include the R1 districts. Thirty-five percent of Santa Monica’s area is zoned R1. That’s a lot of the city, and HCD is not likely to approve the housing element if it directs housing growth, especially affordable housing, everywhere but the R1.

Language from HCD’s checklist for preparation of housing elements relating to requirement for AFFH requirements, including providing “new housing choices” in “high opportunity areas” to “overcome identified patterns of segregation.”

After Mayor Sue Himmelrich made a motion with direction to staff that failed, Council Member McKeown made the motion, seconded by Himmelrich, that was ultimately successful. The motion included the overlay. Although McKeown said that he expected, because of the high cost of land in single-family zones, that it would be unlikely that affordable housing developers would build in the R1, when it came to the final vote on the motion, Council Members Brock, de la Torre, and Parra voted no. In the end it seemed that the image of a four-story affordable apartment next to a single-family house was something they could not stomach.

I will not try to predict how the Housing Element will ultimately deal with the AFFH issue and R1 zoning. However, and maybe this is surprising, I am optimistic that even a shorthanded council will approve something like the current overall proposal. Brock, de la Torre and Parra were elected last November on the “Change” slate. Although the slate did not run primarily on the issue of development, the slate’s candidates had (and still have) support from the most stringent anti-development factions in Santa Monica politics. Many in this faction still want to scrap the whole thing, RHNA numbers and all, and fight HCD. Nonetheless, based on what the three council members said March 30, they do not appear to want to challenge HCD with a noncompliant housing element. I hope not. Santa Monica passed an inadequate Housing Element in the early ’90s that was challenged in court. The City lost and ended up having to pay about $700,000 in the plaintiffs’ legal fees. No one should want to repeat that experience.

* * *

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would be unhappy if Kevin McKeown quit the council, I would have laughed. Now, however, I am sorry to see him go. As most liberals and people of good will who are elected to the Santa Monica City Council as no-growthers sooner or later do, McKeown ultimately found that his progressive values were inconsistent with the demands of increasingly shrill supporters who fear every change that might befall Santa Monica (other than the increases in their home values that come with limiting the housing supply). While McKeown never supported pro-housing zoning as much as I would have liked, in the last five or ten years he has opposed the worst of what the no-growthers proposed. Somewhat valiantly, against their opposition, he has supported efforts to expand the housing supply for the needs of today and the future. For this they have vilified him.

Still, I cannot resist a bit of schadenfreude. For his first 15 or 20 years in Santa Monica politics McKeown was among the crowd that besmirched anyone who believed in building more housing—people like me—as being “in the pocket of developers.” What should have been serious discussions about housing policy devolved into dime-store leftist tirades against “greedy developers.” Yet today McKeown is under attack from those same Santa Monicans Fearful of Change for whom he has carried so much water. And sorry, but I have to smile now to see the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), whose darling he was, whose Steering Committee he dominated, turn against McKeown. Who knows, but the last straw leading to McKeown’s resignation from the council might have been his motion to apply the affordable housing overlay to R1 districts. Apparently, at a meeting of the SMRR Housing Committee last Monday, the night before McKeown announced he was quitting the council, SMRR leadership rejected upzoning R1 to build affordable apartments.

Still, the last adjective I ever thought would apply to Kevin McKeown was “quitter,” and I’m unhappy he’s quit. Kevin McKeown as a council member was nothing if not conscientious. He showed up. The City Council, in dealing not only with the Housing Element but also with everything else post-pandemic and post-May 31, 2020, needs all the seriousness it can get. So does the city.

Thanks for reading.

Whither Malibu (schools)?

As a Santa Monican, the origins of the saga of parents and others in Malibu wanting to separate from the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) and form their own school district seem to me to be lost in the mists of time, but that’s not the case for Malibuans. Their grievances only seem to multiply. Based on letters SMMUSD school board member Craig Foster has recently sent to local media, grievances now include the outlandish claim that the District caused many Malibuans to lose their possessions and homes in the Woolsey fire, and that the District did not open Malibu schools in the pandemic. Even though the District spends more per student in Malibu than in Santa Monica, Foster has accused the District of cutting teachers, staff and programs in Malibu, causing a decline in enrollment there. Emotions are high. (For the District’s response to Foster, go here.)

Back in 2015 the City of Malibu passed a motion to start the process to form a new district. The SMMUSD school board voted not oppose the separation, provided that separation could be accomplished without having a negative impact on the finances of the surviving Santa Monica district. The board appointed a task force consisting of three volunteers from each city. The task force came back with a proposal, whereby the new Malibu district would pay money to the Santa Monica district for 10 years.

The board rejected the task force’s proposal because when the money ended after 10 years Santa Monica students would “fall off a cliff.” Malibuans contend that this rejection of the recommendation was in bad faith, but the board’s fiduciary responsibility is to the students. The board members voting against the recommendation argued that they could not agree to anything that would result a reduction of money per student in Santa Monica.

Since then, off and on, Malibu and SMMUSD had been negotiating a deal (more on those negotiations later), but last fall Malibu broke off negotiations and reactivated a petition for separating that Malibu had filed with the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) in 2017. SMMUSD opposes the formula in that petition as well. The matter will now go before the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization (the “County Committee”) for a hearing April 17. The County Committee can deny the petition, which would kill it without leave to appeal, or “tentatively approve” it. Tentative approval would mean that the matter would proceed to more in-depth hearings, leading to the committee’s final approval or disapproval. That decision could be appealed to the state Board of Education. Ultimately any final decision would need voter approval.

Malibu and Santa Monica are separated by many linear miles of Pacific Coast Highway and many square miles of Pacific Palisades. The fact that they comprise the same school district reflects 19th century historical conditions (namely emptiness). Nonetheless, establishing a new school district for only about 1,200 students, the current number of students in Malibu’s schools including out-of-district permit students, seems ridiculous. Twelve hundred students are about the same number of students at one K-12 private school, Crossroads, here in Santa Monica; imagine Crossroads comprising a school district. What would have happened decades ago in a rational world (meaning not the world of education in California) is for Malibu to have become part of the adjacent Las Virgenes Unified School District.

The City of Santa Monica contributes tens of millions of dollars a year to the District, both under a facility sharing agreement and pursuant to sales taxes voters approved with the understanding that half the money would go to the District. Nonetheless, counter-balancing Santa Monica’s contributions, Malibu’s assessed property values on a per-student basis are significantly higher than Santa Monica’s, and thus more money per student is available to the District from Malibu than from Santa Monica. That funding is the root of the dispute over separation.

Because of Malibu’s high property values and relatively few children, if Malibu leaves the district the amount of money per student in Santa Monica would drop. Strangely, but for the fact that both Malibu and Santa Monica are flush with property taxes compared to the rest of California, this would not make much difference. If the two cities did not generate enough property taxes per student to reach the minimum state level for financing, the state would top off their taxes to bring them up to the minimum.

Malibu, however, has such high property values per child that it would automatically qualify for a status called “basic aid,” which allows a district to self-fund and retain use of local property taxes beyond the state minimum level. There are projections predicting that within five years on its own a Malibu district would have more than $37,000 per student to spend.

(Relevant digression: $37,000 per student would approach the level of private school tuition. If you hear Betsy DeVos-type politicians say that throwing money at education doesn’t make for good schools, ask them why presumably rational and intelligent rich people will pay tuition equal to three or four times as much as public schools get to spend on their students, and why our tax code allows contributions to those schools to be tax-deductible.)

Meanwhile, as per-student funding in Malibu would increase drastically, the remaining students in Santa Monica would take a hit by losing the Malibu property taxes, because, or even though, Santa Monica schools would likely move into the basic aid category in a few years. Proponents of the Malibu split such as Craig Foster argue that once Santa Monica reaches basic aid status, the surviving district would have more money per student than nearly all districts in the state. What happens in those other districts, however, is irrelevant to the decisions the SMMUSD School Board has to make.

After the board rejected the task force’s proposal, direct negotiations ensued. The District’s consultants proposed that at the time of the break-up, Malibu’s tax money would be divided proportionately based on the ratio of the number of students in the two cities. This would mean that upon break-up, the financing would be the same as it was, and Santa Monica students would not have their funding reduced. That base amount of tax would remain divided as such in perpetuity, but any increases in assessed values would go to the city where the increases occur. Property values will likely increase faster in Malibu, and Malibu would gradually accrue more money per student, but Santa Monica values would also increase and there would be no cliff to fall from.

Based on four letters spanning 2019 and the spring of 2020 between Malibu’s lawyers and the District’s consultants, this proposal looked to be forming the basis for an agreement. Malibu made five comments to the proposal, dealing with issues such as how the City of Santa Monica’s contributions would be treated, whether the new district would get help with initial administrative costs, and whether the deal would be reevaluated after 50 years. With some caveats and counter-proposals the District accepted Malibu’s comments, and Malibu seemed to accept the District’s counter although details and contract drafting still had to happen. Based on an April 2020 letter from Malibu, it looked like a deal could be made.

However, there was one issue that did not seem significant, but which turned sticky. The disagreement was over strategy, not substance. It concerned the revenue the District collects each year from a parcel tax approved by voters years ago. The District was fine if Malibu would collect the money from properties in the new district. Malibu, however, was nervous that there was not a valid legal structure for the tax to continue to be collected in Malibu, since the voters of the new district would not have approved the tax. (Under Prop. 13, voters need to approve parcel taxes on a 2/3 vote.) Malibu and the District agreed to ask our local legislators to seek to resolve the issue with legislation in Sacramento, but they disagreed over the timing. Malibu wanted the District to seek the legislation now, while the District wanted to wait until the rest of the deal was agreed on.

In the meantime, the pandemic hit. The District had bigger fish to fry, and the negotiations seem to have stopped. I don’t know; it seems like the question of when to go to the legislature would be more or less a detail if the rest of the deal was coming together. Maybe Malibu simply got frustrated when this issue did not get resolved over the summer. In any case, Malibu refiled its petition with the County’s Office of Education in the fall, and the hearing before the County Committee is next week.

What I do not understand is why Malibu refiled when filing with the County is risky. There are many reasons for the County Committee to reject the petition. For one, Malibu’s position that its property tax revenues are its alone for only Malibu children is not consistent with California law going back to the landmark Serrano v. Priest cases and the refinancing of schools that took place after Prop. 13. Malibu complains that over 50 years $4 billion of its tax revenues would be “redistributed” to Santa Monica students, but property tax revenues are already pooled and shared according to formulas going back to implementation of the Serrano decisions and Prop. 13. Under the District’s proposal, which Malibu had accepted in principle, Malibu would get to keep revenues from future increases in assessed values.

Moreover, the new Malibu district will be much less diverse ethnically than the current combined district and the future Santa Monica district. Currently, Malibu students are about 75% Anglo, and that percentage includes the impact of out-of-district students in Malibu schools, students who tend to be more from non-Anglo backgrounds. As a whole the current SMMUSD is a little over 50% Anglo, and after separation it would be a little under 50% Anglo. The ACLU Foundation has written a strong letter to the County Committee decrying the proposed split as “impermissibly increas[ing] segregation.” Combined with the increased funding, the County Committee could easily determine that separation would not serve public purposes as expressed in the California Education Code. The code requires that district splits be equitable and not further discrimination or segregation.

Meaning that the County Committee will have many reasons to reject the petition. (There are other provisions in the Ed. Code that might also prove problematic for Malibu.) Under the rules, a rejection at this stage would kill Malibu’s petition. The parties could then return to negotiations, but it Malibu’s position would be weakened. If the County Committee gives a tentative approval, it only starts a multi-step process that entails many uncertainties. There are impatient people in Malibu, but the prudent thing would be for Malibu to withdraw its petition and for the parties to get back to the negotiating table, once the District has dealt with reopening schools after the pandemic.

But that won’t happen.

Thanks for reading.

Housing production in Santa Monica, by the numbers

Tonight, the Santa Monica City Council will hold its first hearing to discuss specific and substantive proposals from planning staff for what to include in the next iteration of the state-mandated Housing Element of the City’s General Plan. This is the document you may have heard of in which the City must tell the state how during the period from 2021 to 2029 it will be possible, really and truly, to build 8,895 housing units, of which 6,168 must be affordable. (The numbers are Santa Monica’s “RHNA numbers,” from “Regional Housing Needs Allocation.”)

Cities need to file housing elements every eight years, and the deadline for filing this one is October. Between now and final approval of the Housing Element I will likely write more than a few posts about it. The purpose of this initial post is to give some context for the numbers involved.

The number to begin with is 52,983. That is the total number of housing units in the city as of June 30, 2019, as set forth in the City’s 2020 Affordable Housing Progress Report, the latest calculation I could find. As of that date, the City also had about 1,000 units, give or take, either under construction or approved, and these units presumably won’t be countable against the new RHNA number. That means that going into the 2021-29 period Santa Monica has about 54,000 units either extant or in the works.

The RHNA number, 8,895, is 16.5% of 54,000. Over eight years, that means that Santa Monica must plan for increasing its housing stock by two percent per year. While a two percent annual increase should not be anything to panic over, it would be a marked increase over the rate of housing production in Santa Monica for the past 40 years.

In 1994 I was appointed to the Housing Commission. A year later I was appointed to the Planning Commission. On both commissions I worked on a housing element. With regard to housing policy, I recall many similarities to the situation today.

The context then was that the City had just lost a lawsuit brought by housing developers who contended that the City had adopted a housing element that did not take into account measures the City had enacted that discouraged the building of housing. The developers won the case, and the City had to change its policies to allow more housing to be built. As now, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth.

You may ask, what did the City do in the 80s that was so anti-housing that it lost this case?

It’s complicated. For most of the 80s Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) controlled City Council. SMRR leadership was committed to what it called a “human scaled community,” in opposition, say, to the towers previous city leadership had enabled to be built on the beachfront in Ocean Park or along Ocean Avenue. This led SMRR to oppose higher densities, even for affordable housing. While today people don’t see a disconnect between density and “human scale,” in fairness to Santa Monica’s leadership 40 years ago, the renter neighborhoods in Santa Monica, such as those along Wilshire, Ocean Park, and the Pico Neighborhood, were already among the denser neighborhoods in California and they probably didn’t think they needed to make them denser.  

From what I understand, the primary motivations for SMRR’s anti-housing policies in the 80s were not meant to be anti-housing, but rather to preserve rental housing in residential districts from being destroyed to build condominiums. This was a big problem; conversions were a reaction to rent control, which had been enacted in 1979. While some warned that limitations on new development in residential areas would ultimately mean fewer low-income households in the city, City Council enacted limitations to make conversions less profitable.

Another at least putatively well-meant motivation was to get more affordable housing built. In 1990 City voters approved Measure R, which required that 30% of housing built in Santa Monica be deed-restricted affordable. That goal was not by itself unattainable, and Measure R by itself need not have stopped development of housing. (Since 1990 about 38% of the housing built in Santa Monica has been deed-restricted affordable.) The City Council followed up Measure R, however, with an enforcement ordinance that included draconian on-site requirements for projects with as few as five units.

The results of these policies were that virtually no housing was built, as shown in the following charts, which I scanned from City documents.  

Based on the data in this chart, in 1990 the City had 47,753 housing units. Of them, you’ll see that roughly 9,000 were built before 1940, 7,500 in the 40s, 9,000 in the 50s, more than 10,000 in the 60s and nearly 8,000 in the 70s. (Note that these numbers represent only the units that survived to 1990; considering how many units were destroyed by the freeway and other public works, and normal attrition and replacement, many more units were built in those decades.)

Then note that only 3,617 units were built in the 80s, and there is reason to believe that nearly all of them were constructed early in the decade.

The second chart picks up the story in 1990. You’ll see that the 90s were a catastrophe for housing development. The net number of units in the city increased only 110, from 47,753 to 47,863 in 2000, the lowest rate of increase of the cities listed (none of which did very well, by the way). During the 90s the region was bursting with new immigrants as the population of Los Angeles County increased from 8.86 to 9.5 million (more than seven percent). Working-class poverty and homelessness were becoming crises, but Santa Monica only added, on a net basis, 110 units of housing. Santa Monica’s population, by the way, decreased during the 90s from 86,911 to 84,073, a decline of 3.3%. (This chart shows clearly how the housing crisis we have today in Southern California has its roots in the 90s when housing production failed miserably to keep up with population growth.)

After losing the court case in the early 90s, what did City Council do?

Actually, some good stuff. Before I joined the Housing and Planning Commissions, so I get no credit for this, the City passed landmark new zoning for downtown. The council, which for the most part was still controlled by SMRR, still wanted to discourage building in existing neighborhoods, to preserve rental units. In the meantime, however, the City had opened the Third Street Promenade, and the focus was on downtown. There was little housing there, and so new housing would not cause much displacement. The City decided to focus housing development downtown. 

Downtown was zoned for commercial development, but the council did something simple to encourage residential development: it not only allowed residential development in commercial zones but also allowed twice as much development on downtown properties if the development were residential instead of commercial. The City also passed a new, much more flexible, ordinance implementing Measure R.

Not much happened immediately as we know from the housing production numbers for the 90s. It took a while for developers to figure out what they could do.

By 2000 the reforms began to take effect. In the first decade of the new century, as shown in the second chart, Santa Monica had a net increase of 3,049 units, to a total of 50,912, an increase of 6.4% over the decade. This was in fact a better rate of increase than the County as a whole. While I don’t have data for the next decade all the way through 2020, as of June 30, 2019, as I wrote above, the total number of units was 52,983, an increase of a little over 2,000 in the nine years after 2010.

While slower than the previous decade, growth was steady. An average of about 200 units per year was close to the rate of 250 units per year forecast in the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element, a growth rate of half of one percent. I’ve previously written that a good, sustainable rate of increase for Santa Monica would be one percent per year, or about 500 units. As discussed above, the RHNA requirement over eight years is about double this number, a return to the housing production number of the decades before the 80s.

In future posts I’ll discuss why this number should not frighten anyone. The lesson of the 90s is that the City can respond creatively to the need to build more housing. And the lesson of the 2000s is that dense housing can create a vibrant neighborhood, as has happened downtown.

One last point: I hope someone tonight asks staff why the land the City owns at the Civic Auditorium isn’t included in the inventory of City-owned properties available for housing.

Thanks for reading.

Twenty years later, and there’s a Target in downtown Santa Monica?

Did you receive it? The coupon in the mail giving five dollars off on a purchase of $15 or more at the new Target store at Fifth and Broadway? Of course I had to rush over as soon as I could to see the new store, which is in a remodel of what was Fred Segal. I had to smile when I saw it: what a prosaic denouement to a drama from 20 years ago.

The new Target store at Fifth and Broadway.

In 2000, when I started writing my weekly column for the Santa Monica Lookout News, the planning issue that more than any other defined what was going on in Santa Monica was whether Target could build a store at the corner of Fifth and Santa Monica. The site had been the parking lot behind Henshey’s, Santa Monica’s homegrown department store, destroyed in the 1994 earthquake.

I wrote a number of columns about Target, including one in December 2000 that was the first column I wrote about a development issue. Having just reread it, it’s one that with a few revisions I could adapt for one of today’s controversies over whether Santa Monicans need to consider the needs of working-class people when they make planning decisions.

Target was controversial, to say the least. The project embodied a new trend in urbanism that many in Santa Monica were not ready for. While urban Targets are common now, back then Santa Monica’s would have been only the second one. Instead of a box surrounded by parking near an off-ramp in the suburbs, this store would be three stories on a busy downtown corner. The parking would have been underground and would have been open to the public on the same terms as the City’s parking structures.

Public hearings at both the Planning Commission and then at City Council extended over multiple evenings and late into the night. Ultimately Target lost, on a 5-2 City Council vote. Then as now, there were Santa Monicans who, while complaining that Santa Monica was too dense, still prayed to the gods of suburbia for relief if not vengeance.

The five no votes reflected attacks on the project from two directions. Three of the no votes came from three-quarters of the councilmembers who were then considered Santa Monica’s anti-development majority: Kevin McKeown, Richard Bloom, and Michael Feinstein. They reflected the concerns of the usual suspects opposed to change. McKeown summarized those concerns with the words, “it’s the traffic, stupid.”

The primary impact that the Target would have had on traffic would have been to make life more convenient for Santa Monica residents who wouldn’t have had to drive to Culver City to buy a cheap set of towels. Back then environmental analysis didn’t consider a development’s impact on per capita vehicle miles traveled.

The three from the no-growth side would not have been enough to kill Target but for the surprising no votes of Robert Holbrook and the late Herb Katz. Holbrook and Katz more or less represented the traditional business community in Santa Monica, and they generally supported development. This time they voted no. While they gave various rationales, not all consistent, it was clear from testimony that their friends who ran businesses downtown were worried about the competition that Target would bring as a discount department store.

The two yes votes came from Pam O’Conner, the councilmember most attuned to urbanism, and, from the late Ken Genser, the original growth-skeptic on the council and normally the other one-quarter of the anti-development majority.

O’Connor’s vote was not a surprise. She cut through the rhetorical thicket by pointing out that all the council was being asked to do was to approve a department store on the site of what had been a department store, and that, in particular, this would be a department store that marketed itself to working people, as opposed to the high-end department stores at Santa Monica Place.

Genser’s yes vote was a surprise to many people, but not to me. While Genser had emerged from the anti-development wing of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights in the 80s, he had a nuanced view about development and could not be pigeon-holed. While fiercely protective of Santa Monica’s neighborhoods, he was a big supporter of development in downtown Santa Monica, in part to relieve pressure on the neighborhoods, but also because he liked downtown ambiance. Some years later, not long before he died, I heard Genser speak at a Santa Monica Democratic Club event. Someone asked him what was the most surprising thing that had happened during his long career on the council. Genser shook his head and replied that he still couldn’t understand why the council had not approved Target.

I don’t know when, but at some point it became common wisdom that rejecting Target had been a mistake. I remember Ted Winterer, when he was running for City Council on an anti-development platform, saying that he couldn’t understand why Target hadn’t been approved. After I lost my race for City Council in 2012, I had a coffee with one of the other losing candidates. He was from the anti-development side but we’d become friendly during the campaign. I was flabbergasted when he told me that it was big mistake not to approve the Target. Yet he didn’t see the connection with his no-growth politics. To him, there was some kind of mysterious force, some “they,” who had killed Target.

It didn’t kill me that Target was killed. A Target would have been great for that corner, but I knew that if the developers could not build a commercial development, they would build housing. In fact, under the zoning then in effect, they could build twice as much housing as they could commercial. That’s what they did. Instead of a three-story Target, they built five story buildings with ground floor retail and four floors of apartments.

The apartments on the Fifth Street side of the original Target site.
The apartments from Santa Monica Boulevard.

And 20 years later, there’s a Target in downtown Santa Monica, one block away from the original location. Go buy some towels.

Thanks for reading.

In case you’re interested, here are links to my columns on Target:

“Who do we think we are?” (First column on Target, after the Planning Commission vote)

“Target: Panic in the Streets” (Preceding the City Council hearing)

“Target: Tale of Two Cities” (After the hearing)

Return to Target, A Play in Many Acts (After the council’s vote)

What about the whataboutism?

When I first wrote for public consumption—which was when I was in high school in the late 60s and I wrote rock reviews for the Distant Drummer, Philadelphia’s underground newspaper—my editor would not let me respond to critical letters to the editor. He said that I had my forum, my reviews, and that I should leave the readers alone.

Following that advice, I don’t usually comment on responses I receive to my posts. I’m going to make an exception, though, to respond to comments opposing the views I expressed in my post about the planning history of Historic Belmar Park. For two reasons: one, because most of the comments I received illustrate a rhetorical phenomenon, known as “whataboutism,” that’s become more common in an era where people argue past each other, and two, because most of the “what about” comments were attacks on the Early Childhood Lab School (ECLS) that the City of Santa Monica and Santa Monica College (SMC) are building just north of the new park.

Entrance on Fourth Street to the ECLS, slated to open later this year.

I’m interested in whataboutism, and the ECLS deserves to be defended.

“Whataboutism” is an old rhetorical device, but it became better known in January, when Republican members of Congress responded to the January 6 insurrection by asking, “but what about [fill in the blank]?” Don’t panic, I’m not equating the situation with the sports field and the ECLS with what happened in Washington (nor the sports field boosters with the Proud Boys), but the form of argument is the same. You see, after I published my post, few of the critical comments I received (which you may not have seen because they were on a Facebook page about Santa Monica politics) disputed the history I laid out. (However, if you want a clear statement of how the sports field boosters see that history, you can find it here.) Instead, the critics said that my criticisms of the sports field didn’t count because the ECLS was worse.

The front of the ECLS from across Fourth Street; the classroom buildings are behind this.

The ECLS is a joint venture between the City of Santa Monica, SMC, and the RAND Corporation. It will provide infant and toddler care, and a preschool, for up to 110 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and serve as an instructional facility for SMC’s teacher training program. The daycare and preschool will be operated by The Growing Place, which currently operates facilities on public land in two places in Santa Monica: at Marine Park and on part of the old Washington Elementary School site in Ocean Park. I don’t know how financial aid will be determined, but a minimum of 15 percent of the children will be from low-income households. (Disclosure that I’m not sure is necessary, but why not: in the early 90s my wife and I sent our son to preschool at the Growing Place. That was a long time ago, but it might be more grist for the oppositional mill, since one critic described the Growing Place as “daycare provider to the City’s power elite.”)

The whataboutism came in because the critics said I was hypocritical because I did not, when I criticized the field for being fenced off, “apply the exact same criticism to the ECLS,” which was described as a “private, walled fortress,” providing elite “private day care for City, SMC, and Rand staff.”

A Facebook comment about the ECLS, chiding me for criticizing the limited access to the sports field, but not criticizing the ECLS.

I don’t recall writing about the ECLS, neither in my Lookout columns nor in this blog. It wasn’t controversial enough to warrant a column. However, when I participated on the Civic Working Group (CWG), the task force that the City formed to devise a strategy to save the Civic Auditorium, and the CWG started to hold workshops, I began to hear vitriol about the ECLS coming from sport field boosters (not from all of them, but from the loudest). In turn, they attracted support from the faction in Santa Monica who oppose anything that the City (or anyone else) wants to build.

The ECLS has always been part of planning for the Civic Center. If you still have your Voter Information Pamphlet from the 1994 referendum on the 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan (you don’t?), turn to page 30, where, referring to “Parcel D, Public Building Site” (exactly where the ECLS is today), the plan says, “[a] child care facility shall be provided within this parcel to serve the needs of the Civic Center area. The precise size will be based upon projected resident and employee needs. The facility will be funded through contributions from the City, County, and private development within the Civic Center.”

From the 1994 Voter Information Pamphlet.

In fact, the plan to include childcare in the Civic Center goes back to the task force that the City formed in the late 80s to plan the future of the Civic Center. The sports field boosters complain that they have had to wait 15 years since City Council approved the concept of the field to get it built, but the childcare community has had to wait twice that long, and their center was included in a plan that the voters approved on a 60-40 vote. The sports field wasn’t.

The 1993 plan envisioned a park on the site, and a 55,000 square foot cultural center. A lot of people wanted SMC to build a theater there, but SMC built the Madison site theater (now known as the Broad Stage) instead, and the cultural center idea was later dropped (creating room for the sports field). Here’s a detail from the 1993 plan. (Apparently it was thought that tennis courts could go on top of the cultural center.)

From the 1993 plan Urban Design Concept (p. 15 in the voter pamphlet). The building with the tennis courts on the roof is the cultural center. The building just to the west is the childcare center.

The ECLS, at approximately 18,000 square feet on approximately 60,000 square feet of land, is much smaller than the total development on the site that the voters approved, but the sports field boosters are bothered by the size of the ECLS. They say it’s been “super-sized” with, among other things, “its own giant fire lane.” (Maybe a code requires that?) It’s true that the predicted size of the ECLS has gone up and down over the years (from 10,000 square feet in 1993, to a low of 6,500 in a later iteration, and then to its final 18,000 once the educational program was completed), but it hardly seems outlandish for a facility with room for 110 children of varying ages. Its size obviously did not interfere with building the sports field.

One of the playgrounds at the ECLS.

The sports field boosters say that if I criticize the field for being fenced off from the public, then I should criticize the ECLS for being a “private, walled fortress.” In response, all I can say is, are you kidding? What childcare facility or school is open for the public to walk in and out of?

However, in fairness to the original boosters of the field, they did not intend for it to be fenced off. Twenty years ago, before synthetic fields took over, sports fields were open, as parks. It’s been pointed out to me (by a field booster who I hope still considers me a friend) that back in 2003 I wrote a column supporting the sports field. True, I did, but in that column I supported the field because I thought one would attract people to the Civic Center on weekends. Here’s how the field was depicted in a 2005 version of the Civic Center plan.

From the 2005 urban design concept showing the field as then planned to be part of a park. Note also the (unlabeled) childcare center between the field and the courthouse, and the large parking lot where most of the ECLS is now located.

Notice how much smaller the field is than what was built, and how it was to be part of a park open to the public. But synthetic fields have changed everything. The fields save maintenance costs and can be used year-round, but the public has to be kept out to save the expensive fields from sticky drinks and messy snacks. When the new field is played “crosswise” on smaller fields, there isn’t even sideline space for parents to stand and scream at the referee. It’s not a park that will connect with the neighborhood or attract strollers to the Civic Center.

The sports field boosters often say that they support childcare, but that this location was the wrong place. I get this argument; after all, I support sports fields in general even if I no longer support one at the Civic Center. But they’re wrong. Childcare has been part of the plan from the beginning because it makes sense to put childcare and preschools near where people work. Boosters also made an argument that SMC owns lots of land and could have built the ECLS elsewhere; but haven’t (some of) SMC’s Sunset Park neighbors said for years that they don’t want SMC to expand its campus? And haven’t SMC’s satellite campuses been a good thing? The ECLS is another one.

Another attack on the ECLS is that while it will serve the “elite,” it has been built with public funds and sits on public land. This argument, which reminds me of the arguments that come from people who say that we only need to plan for affordable housing, seems to conflate a big social issue, namely childcare for working people of all classes, with a reverse classism whereby people who are not poor (namely, the kind of people in an affluent town like Santa Monica who play or whose kids play soccer, lacrosse and rugby) say that families who can afford to pay for childcare shouldn’t get it, or shouldn’t have it subsidized, because they are “elites.”

Yes, absolutely, in a better America government would provide free preschool and childcare, as it provides free K-12. In the meantime, that’s not what we have. Just as college graduates who make too much money to qualify for affordable housing still need places to live and raise their families, those families need places to have childcare and preschool, however expensive the fees are. Families with young children, even if the parents are “young professionals,” need help. We applaud private employers who help provide childcare for their employees; shouldn’t we applaud the City and SMC for building childcare facilities and allowing public land to be used for childcare? Government should set an example. (I should also mention that RAND contributed $500,000 to the cost of building the ECLS, and additional funds that are going into scholarships.)

And . . . dare I say, that as an “elite” former Growing Place parent whose son went on to play many years of AYSO soccer, it’s a little rich for the boosters of AYSO soccer, lacrosse and rugby to complain about elites. Attend a weekend tournament for any of these sports and you’ll see parking lots full of shiny SUVs. (Or you can see them now as parents try to drop kids off on Fourth Street at the one entrance to the new field.) These kids in daycare today will be playing sports tomorrow. I suppose then they will no longer be the “lucky offspring of City, Rand, and SMC employees,” as one field booster described them, but the rising proletariat of young soccer, lacrosse and rugby players.

Another irony comes from the fact that the ECLS critics accuse me and presumably the rest of the CWG for supporting private development on the site, alleging that we wanted a “boutique hotel” or other “commercial buildings,” that would turn public land over to profit-seeking developers. For the record, the CWG didn’t recommend anything; it laid out the possibilities and analyzed the financial implications of those possibilities but left it to potential re-developers of the Civic Auditorium to propose what they thought could work. Yet, while decrying the possibility of commercial development, the sports field boosters vociferously object to the ECLS, which is the antithesis of a profit-making entity.

Which gets down to the reality, which is opposition to change. Some people genuinely believe in the power of team sports to foster paradise, and I respect them. The political onslaught for the field and against any plan to save the Civic Auditorium came, however, from people who oppose building anything, whether it’s private or public, profitable or charitable, commercial or residential. If I could get my wish, the rest of the land around the Civic Auditorium, as well as the auditorium itself (save the beautiful lobby), will be included in the City’s inventory for housing sites and ultimately turned over to an affordable housing provider to build housing for low- and moderate-income families and workers, and for the homeless. I wonder how many of the sports field boosters would support that.

Now that the field and the ECLS have been built, there were a couple of comments from sports field boosters saying that okay, now it’s time to “cool it.” This is the final irony, because the sports field boosters were the only participants in the process that weren’t cool. The historic preservation community certainly rolled over. Childcare supporters generally supported the sports field and certainly didn’t oppose it. The attacks on the ECLS were ugly and gratuitous. It was never “either/or” between the field and the ECLS. Maybe the ferocity of the advocacy for the field intimidated any opposition, but for whatever reason all the heat came from one side.  

No, before asking everyone to cool it, the sports field boosters should apologize to the childcare community for the years of insults.

What about it?

Thanks for reading.

Historic Belmar Park: gratification and chagrin

I attended on Zoom the on-line inauguration of Historic Belmar Park on Sunday with a mix of gratification and chagrin.

The gratification came easy. Back in 2006 I wrote a Lookout column about the African-American Belmar neighborhood that the City destroyed in the 50s to build the Civic Auditorium. A park was then planned to replace the Civic’s parking lot, and I called for naming it “Belmar Park.” (I’m happy with the addition of “Historic.”) I wrote several more columns about Belmar and I gave talks about its history and its destruction at the Santa Monica History Museum and at Annenberg Beach House.

Welcome to Historic Belmar Park

In 2014, when the City named the affordable apartments built on former Rand land on the other side of Main Street the Belmar Apartments, I was told that until the Lookout published my column, no one (or I suspect no one who was white) in City Hall knew about Belmar or what had happened to it.

Thus, when I consider all that I’ve written about Santa Monica since starting my Lookout column 20 years ago, well, at least I have at least one thing to be proud of.

I’m also thrilled with how the City has commemorated Belmar at the new park, with truly excellent interpretive panels informed by the research of Dr. Alison Jefferson, and a terrific work of public art by artist April Banks.

One of the interpretive panels in the new park.

The work by Ms. Banks, entitled “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas,” evokes elements of the typical houses that the City destroyed to build the Civic.

April Banks’ “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas”

If you wonder what those houses might look like today, if the neighborhood had survived and evolved like Ocean Park, there are still many of them south of Pico in my neighborhood of Ocean Park. Here’s a picture of one on Sixth Street.

The kind of house that the City destroyed in Belmar, 60 years later. Note the multi-unit building next door. Over 60 years the single-family neighborhood evolved into the much-loved and now very expensive Ocean Park neighborhood of today. So much for apartments reducing property values.

Everyone who worked on the commemorative aspects of the new park deserves commendation, particularly Dr. Jefferson and Ms. Banks, but also the volunteers from the public, and city staff, who worked on what was called the Belmar History + Art project.

My chagrin is more complicated. It’s triggered by the fenced-in sports field that is ringed by the commemorative elements of the park.

The high fencing at the park. To keep the people out and the balls in.

My involvement with the site goes back almost 30 years. I first became involved in Santa Monica politics in 1993 when I participated in the public process that resulted in the Civic Center Specific Plan. The City had initiated a planning process in 1988 to establish zoning for the roughly 40 acres of the Civic Center. The Civic Center was a forlorn example of 50s era, modernist utopianism. One staff report I read described the area as being a great place for walking; the only problem was that there were no pedestrians because there was no reason to walk there.

The 1993 plan called for concentrating private development west of Main Street and along Ocean Avenue, where the land was mostly owned by the Rand Corporation. The plan also reintroduced the street grid, with an extension of Olympic Boulevard between 4th Street and Ocean Avenue. Relevant to the new Belmar park, the plan called for a park to replace the Civic Auditorium’s parking lot. (The parking was to be replaced by a parking structure behind the courthouse, which was built.) Here’s a rendering of the plan.

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, approved by voters in June 1994.

The plan was challenged in a referendum on the grounds that it allowed too much development and thus would generate too much traffic, but Santa Monica voters overwhelmingly approved it, 60% to 40%, in June 1994. (I was the treasurer of the campaign to approve the plan.)

Plans are plans and not reality, however. As a result of the 1990s economic downturn, Rand and its development partner couldn’t raise the money needed to develop Rand’s 15 acres. In 1999 Rand sold most of its land to the City. This led to revisions of the plan, which ultimately generated the mixed-use developments, including the Belmar Apartments, that have arisen between Main and Ocean, south of the extension of Olympic Boulevard, and the construction of Tongva Park north of Olympic.

The revisions to the plan, however, resulted in much less development than what the 1993 plan envisioned, as the City Council responded to pleas for “more open space.” Between the fact that Rand built less than it had the right to build, and the elimination of 250,000 square feet of housing, development at the Civic Center was reduced by almost half a million square feet. This is one reason why the Civic Center, including Tongva Park, is nearly as forlorn a place as it was in 1993. There were supposed to be a lot more people walking around.

Along the way, in 2005, City Council agreed to amend the plan further to include a sports field in the park replacing the Civic parking lot. In 2009 the School District released a plan for the Samohi campus that included the addition of a third field in the high school’s campus; if the District had been able to move to construction, that would have obviated the need for the field on the Civic Center site. But that didn’t happen.

The final piece of the Civic Center was the Civic Auditorium. The Civic was a white elephant that drained money each year; not only that, but it was seismically unsound and would require a lot of money to rehab. The City wanted to save the Civic, however, and a lot of people testified about how much they loved the Civic, because of the great rock concerts they had gone to there. When the City still had redevelopment money the City had a plan to rebuild the auditorium in a public-private venture with the Nederlander Organization. That plan fell apart when Gov. Jerry Brown terminated redevelopment. As a result, the City closed the auditorium to the public. (Full disclosure, I opposed the Nederlander/redevelopment plan. And also this if you’re really interested.)

That brings us to what was for me the saddest, most chagrin-producing episode in this long saga, the formation, in 2014, of the Civic Working Group (CWG). I was a member of the CWG, which the City formed with a mandate to figure out how to save the Civic as part of a “mixed use cultural center.” The idea was that the City would leverage some development around the Civic to subsidize the cost of rebuilding it, all with a private sector partner that would take over operations. The CWG’s job was to come up with parameters to send to potential partners.

I never should have joined the CWG, because City Council never gave a clear direction on what it wanted to do about the sports field that had been promised in 2005. It was clear to anyone that a full-sized sports field was inconsistent with the mixed-use cultural center the City said it wanted, but that was never stated clearly up front. The ambiguity was unfair to everyone.

As for the CWG, we worked for 18 months on a plan (or rather, parameters for a future plan) that called for including a publicly accessible park on the site, but our efforts were doomed because when staff presented our work to the City Council, the political weight of the sports field boosters overwhelmed not only the council and City Manager Rick Cole, but also the historic preservation community that had pressed to save the Civic.

The council caved and ultimately came up with $6 million or so to build the field, which is on land worth tens of millions of dollars. The field will operate for the most part as a locked, fenced-off private sports facility. The high school will use it for a couple of hours a day, but only after school hours because there’s no time during the school day for students to cross Fourth Street. The school district had a representative on the CWG, who told us that the district didn’t want the field, and that it still planned to build a third field on the school’s campus. The field will be scheduled, reserved and used primarily by private soccer, lacrosse and rugby leagues. Post-Covid, if the City’s finances improve, it might be possible to have a few hours per week when the facility will be open to the public, but as with all artificial turf fields, all uses must be supervised to preserve the “grass.”

No picnics at this park. No snacks either.

The field the sports people wanted is so big that there wasn’t even room for a jogging track.

Normally I’m a huge booster for sports fields, but this important corner was not the place for a fenced-off park. The site is too important to the neighborhood and its connection to the Civic Center. The blocks coming up from the beach should be a lively stretch of urban geography, open and attractive to all. The street was ruined in the 50s when the Civic Auditorium, with its ugly back turned to the street, replaced Belmar, but reorientating the site back towards the street was possible in the context of a new, mixed-use cultural district.

The back of the Civic, facing the neighborhood, as seen from Pico. A violent act of 50s-era urban vandalism.

My chagrin was multiplied because of what I witnessed as a member of the CWG. I know there are true believers in the sports fields for the sake of sports fields, who worked for the fields back in 2005. I know some of them personally and respect them, even if I disagree with them about this location. It was evident, however, during the CWG planning process that most of the support for the field came from the faction of Santa Monicans that is anti anything new, particularly housing or commercial development. They were able to use the sports fields as leverage against development, and the sports field people were able to use the anti’s to get their field. It was a synergistic relationship.

So, 22 years after Santa Monica voters approved the Civic Center plan 60-40, the opponents of the plan had won.

The final chagrin-producing event came when the sports field had to get final approval at the Coastal Commission. The sports field boosters were worried that the commission might not agree with fencing off public land so close to the beach. They came up with the argument that because the City had used eminent domain to buy the land for public use from the Belmar neighbors in the 50s, and since the sports field was a public use (at least in their view), the commission should approve the field. It was like saying that reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and everything else that has befallen Black people could be handled by building fields for soccer, lacrosse and rugby.

Imagine how I felt when on the day of the Coastal Commission hearing I got a call from a friend from the preservation community, who was at the hearing, telling me that the sports field boosters were using my articles about Belmar to support their case. Now I know how Bruce Springsteen feels when a right-wing candidate blasts “Born in the USA” at a rally. (By the way, to correct something that the boosters have said since, the CWG made it a key point in our report that whatever would be built, the Belmar neighborhood had to be commemorated.)

The good news was that the Coastal Commission, after hearing from Dr. Jefferson, approved the sports field only on the condition that the City include a commemoration of Belmar. That resulted in the Belmar History + Art project.

The remaining question is what happens to the Civic Auditorium. The sports field has made rehabbing and reopening the Civic as a performance venue impossible because on its own, without subsidy from development of the surrounding land, the Civic, once it’s been rehabbed, is not financially viable. Much like the debacle at 4th and Arizona, the City owns valuable land but is paralyzed because of an inherently contentious public process.

The only solution is for the City to turn over the Civic and the remaining land, including the land on top of the two water retention projects the City is building there, to affordable housing developers to build a mix of low and moderate income affordable housing. The housing could preserve and reuse the Civic’s façade and lobby, which are the most important architectural elements. New construction could be oriented towards and help rejuvenate Pico. Housing could also be built on Main Street, along with a publicly accessible small park, with a playground.

But this will probably have to wait until the last Baby Boomer who saw a concert at the Civic has died.

Thanks for reading.

Nostalgia is not history

There are more than a division’s worth of soldiers in Washington to assure a safe, if no longer 100% peaceful, transition of power to Joe Biden. In that context, it is hard to live by Tip O’Neill’s adage and my usual mantra, “all politics is local.” The name of this blog, however, includes “local,” and local politics don’t stop because of what happens in the wider world. I’m reminded of Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001. The then City Manager, the formidable Susan McCarthy, kept City Hall open, declaring that to shut down the operations of government would be to hand a victory to the terrorists. I remember because I attended a zoning hearing that morning in City Hall to testify for a neighbor who needed a variance.

If Susan McCarthy could keep City Hall operating after 9/11, I’m not going to let a bunch of lunatic putschists in Washington prevent me from writing about why it’s okay to tear down the History Building at Santa Monica High School.

The entrance to the History Building at Samohi.

You may not be aware of the Samohi History Building controversy, because it has played out more in social media and by means of on-line petitions than in the press (although you can read about it here). What’s happening is that the School District is more than five years into the planning of the “Samohi Campus Plan” (SCP), a 25-year project to remake the Santa Monica High School campus, which itself is the product of many years of agonizing about what to do with the high school campus. Construction has begun; however, the SCP is a project with nine phases of construction, and the District is now only about to start Phase 3.

Phase 3 will require the demolition of the History Building, which is one of a cluster of four school buildings constructed or reconstructed as New Deal, WPA projects after the Long Beach Earthquake destroyed the original campus that dated back to 1913. Under the SCP, three of the buildings (History, Business, Art) will ultimately be demolished; a fourth, the English building, will be adapted and reused for administrative offices.

Current layout of the Samohi campus. The New Deal Cluster consists of the English, History, Business and Art Buildings.

Although the plans to demolish the History Building (and the other buildings) have been public knowledge, and well-publicized, since 2016, it is only now that preservationists, organized by the Santa Monica Conservancy, are demanding that the District “pause” the SCP to evaluate adaptive reuse possibilities. This request for a pause, however, is disingenuous, since preserving the three New Deal buildings, all of which had their historic integrity compromised by later renovations, would gut the SCP. The fundamental principle of the SCP is to realign the academic buildings around open space, to better connect the campus. This would be impossible if the New Deal buildings are retained. Saving them would require creating an entirely new plan, and I have to assume the preservationists know this. Here’s the landscaping plan for the new campus.

The yellow buildings will be constructed. (Note that one existing building, the Innovation Building in the northeast corner, is in fact new, having been constructed in 2105.) (This map is from the EIR; I’ve been informed that since the EIR changes have been made, but that they do not change the functioning materially.)

Ironically, the new plan, in its use of connecting open space, harks back to the original plan of the high school, when the academic buildings were concentrated around open space. Here’s a photo of the campus from 1925:

It was not easy for me to decide to oppose the Conservancy on the fate of the New Deal buildings. The Conservancy is one of my favorite organizations in town. I’ve long been a member. I was pleased to work with preservationists in the effort, probably futile now, to save the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. And speaking of favorite things, one of mine is the New Deal.

But the New Deal was not about buildings as buildings, it was about a vision of the future, a future structured by public investment in buildings, etc., that served the public. Sometimes the history of a place is more important than the preservation of artifacts. The real history of the Santa Monica High School campus—as opposed to the nostalgia—is a history of continual reinvestment, renewal, and rethinking. The buildings themselves (and without regard to intervening modifications) are not the history; they merely reflect the history.

Santa Monica voters passed a major bond issue in 1911 to build a new and bigger campus for the high school on Prospect Hill. The campus opened in 1913. As mentioned, the campus was destroyed by the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and reconstructed with WPA funds. Then after World War II, to accommodate the Baby Boom generation, more bonds were passed, the campus was doubled in size (with land taken by eminent domain from African American and other historical “minorities,” but that’s another story), and most of the current campus was built. (That’s when the WPA buildings were remodeled. Fortunately no one is protesting the coming demolition of the 1960-era buildings.)

The Santa Monica community has always supported its schools with bonds. That’s the history: Santa Monicans want the best educations for their children and they’re willing to pay.

In the ’90s, when it was apparent that the facilities built generations before were wearing out, voters began passing bond issues to rebuild. Most of the bond money has gone to rehabilitating existing schools, and that’s largely been a good thing for the elementary schools, but the question of what to do with the high school was always there. It was recognized that much of the physical plant was impractical for current modes of instruction, and the campus was hard to get around, especially for students between classes. (My son went there, and he’s my source.) The buildings and grounds were in generally poor condition. For a time, there was talk of using the City’s redevelopment funds to help with some of the rebuilding, but that plan fell apart.

The School District decided some years ago to go bold, and that boldness resulted in the SCP. Most of the existing buildings will be torn down, and a spectacular new campus will take their place. Bravo. Look, I don’t pretend to know anything about the best way to teach adolescents in the 21st century, but if you study the SCP (you can read about it in the Environmental Impact Report), you have to be impressed with how much thought the District has put into the plan.

The purpose of the School District is to educate, not to preserve buildings if they no longer serve that purpose. Frankly, it’s outrageous for the Conservancy, especially since it’s been four years after the plans to demolish the buildings were publicized, to now tell the School Board to throw out its plans for the high school.

Thanks for reading. And all the best to Joe and Kamala! Let’s help them save our country.

To save democracy: 1. Prosecute. 2. Reorient the economy.

“It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” From Section 1 of the National Labor Relations Act.

In my last post I wrote that the first necessary step after last week’s failed insurrection is to prosecute the perpe-traitors, relentlessly. Arrests are taking place across the country. Prosecutors should find plenty incriminating and illuminating information when they have warrants to search the perps’ phones and computers.

Included in this first step is the immediate impeachment of Trump. That bit of justice is moving forward; I won’t add much to the discussion. Impeachment or even conviction would not preclude criminal prosecution. If the Department of Justice files criminal charges against Trump, prosecutors should be able to obtain warrants to search his cell phone, too. I wonder what they would find in that search.

The second necessary course of action will be longer-term. It must begin now, however. That step is a reorientation of the American economy to benefit working people. Judging by the appointments Joe Biden is making, and what he’s been saying since the election, this will be the primary focus, beyond fixing Covid-19, of the Biden administration. This is not only a matter of justice, but also will be crucial for the Democrats to win the 2022 mid-term elections, the next “most important election” in our lives.

The cretins who stormed the Capitol are the latest iteration of a long history of renegade, often racist, violence in our culture. These malevolent forces have always been present, notwithstanding our “shining city on a hill” self-image. I suspect that the great-grandparents, or even the grandparents, of many of those who stormed the Capitol instigated or joined lynch mobs—and bought the postcards afterwards.

Yet the impact these atavistic forces have waxes and wanes with the amount of oxygen they receive from the broader culture. Today what fuels them comes not only from an amoral president who feasted off their adoration, but also from what has fueled him: the grievances of people who have been left behind by a globalized economy organized for half a century on neoliberal principles that favor capital over labor.

There will always be demagogues who feed on grievances, using them, twisting them, for their own purposes, without any regard for the well-being of the aggrieved. The aggrieved are means to their ends of having power for the sake of power. John Maynard Keynes and others recognized that economic ruin led to totalitarianism. They argued that liberal government had to have the substantive purpose, beyond its own liberal structure, of ensuring that the people were secure in their economic lives.

During the Depression and after World War II, these economists and others (“New Dealers” here in America) were able to shape the economic rules to create a system that was capitalistic, but that had as its primary purpose the raising of the standard of living of, and the creation of a social structure that protected, working people, while also protecting middle-class investors by regulating the world of finance.

Regulated capitalism, joined with public investment in capital projects and social services, was wildly successful in the industrialized democracies and in many other countries around the world. However, although capitalists made money, the controls on capital and the costs of the social benefits rankled the worlds of finance.

When Republicans took control of the economy, with the elections of Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980, they began to dismantle the post-War system, decontrolling movements of goods and capital while weakening the power of labor. Since then, the economic lives of working people have been in decline in both absolute and relative terms. Whole regions of the industrial world, and great cities, were left to fend for themselves. What had been good union jobs in factories became, at best for those who could find them, poorly-paid service jobs, which have now devolved into “gigs.”

While Trump’s base centers itself in the white working class in the “Rust Belt,” and extends into small towns and rural areas also left behind, the damage wasn’t limited to those areas. Here in Los Angeles, for instance, African-American and Latinx workers and communities were hit hard when factories shut down. Cities in the Northeast and Midwest with large African-American populations were devastated.

Fixing the economy, post-neoliberalism, in no way should be considered catering to the Trump base. In fact, Democrats, after the November election, are acutely aware that Trump made inroads in certain Latinx, Black, and immigrant communities using economic fears. Democrats must address the concerns of all victims of neoliberal capitalism, no matter where they live or now they vote.

President-Elect Biden understands this. While job number one will be to stop the pandemic, I expect his administration will meanwhile be the most favorable to labor since the Kennedy and Johnson administrations more than half a century ago.

Last Thursday, in a talk the President-Elect gave introducing his economic team, including his nominee for Labor Secretary, he said something that I don’t recall ever hearing a politician say. Namely, Biden reminded us that federal labor law does not merely provide that workers may form unions, but that the policy of the United States is to encourage collective bargaining. (See the language above from the National Labor Relations Act.)

In his talk, President-Elect Biden spoke about how he intended to work (with the new Secretary of Labor, and with a shout-out to Bernie Sanders) on an “agenda of increasing worker power.” Unfortunately, he won’t get to appoint his own General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (a crucial post) until November, or reestablish a Democratic majority on the NLRB until 2022. In the meantime, though, he will immediately push for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 and we can expect other measures to help workers. (Now that the Democrats control the Senate’s agenda.)

These measures will only be a start on reorienting the economy to benefit working people. But they will be a sign.

Thanks for reading. And stay safe.